Ray Sawhill: Most people probably take “The Age of Innocence” as a more-visually-inventive-than-usual Merchant-Ivory film. And most of them seem to enjoy it as such.
Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill: Middlebrow alert!
Polly Frost: It’s set in upper-crust 19th century New York City, among old money but just as the robber barons are emerging. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer. He has a private income, he dabbles in the law, he’s a member of one of the respectable families, and he’s engaged to the flawless, brainless offspring of another “good” family (Winona Ryder). But he has a hankering for culture. He caresses his books, and he knows one or two painters.
RS: Into his world walks Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska, woman of mystery and scandal. She’s fleeing a marriage to a philandering Polish count. She’s exotic, a teeny bit bohemian. Newland falls for her bigtime. So: will the countess, who needs money, return to the count or not? And what will Newland do about his passion for her?
PF: He’s such an honor-bound square that the way he expresses his passion for her is by helping her. There’s nothing more irritating than a man who gives you a lecture rather than making a pass at you. I’ve known a few of those.
RS: It’s a film in the tradition of “Brief Encounter.” And the missed-opportunity tragi-comedy is not my favorite genre. What do you make of the fact that some people have an appetite for genteel entertainments on this theme?
PF: They make a viewer feel civilized. They’re soap operas with all the good parts taken out.
RS: Newland Archer is a rotten central character. He’s a prig. You never understand why the countess looks at him passionately. Another problem is that Scorsese externalizes everything. Crimson, gold and chandeliers are everywhere. Since it’s already a Visconti world, the Countess doesn’t stand out. The film winds up being narrated and illustrated rather than dramatized.
PF: Some of the actors in the minor roles do seem to exist fully in the world of codified behavior and language. And Winona Ryder has a puppy-like helplessness, even when she’s being lethal and enslaving, that’s very effective.
RS: But Day-Lewis can’t do much with his role but mourn the way his balls are shriveling up. He’s so meticulous about playing a yearning American that he seems super-British. Pfeiffer works hard to generate some Garbo-like luster, but her nerves and her voice seem pure California.
PF: I liked her better than you did. She’s trying to come up with a reason why the countess is attracted to Newland. Maybe her interpretation is: the countess is out of her mind. She’s having a nervous breakdown.
RS: There’s another problem, which is the material itself. Over to you, honey.
PF: It’s a shallow and arch book, and it scores too easily off its characters. It exists mainly in its narration. Although when Wharton lets the two women really play with Newland, the book almost becomes malicious fun.
RS: I hate the snug, mocking social commentary about what “old New York” was like.
PF: And I hated Joanne Woodward’s reading of the narration. She had the tone of voice of someone who isn’t fun to gossip with. Julia Child would have been a better choice for the narrator.
RS: Scorsese makes old New York look like Vatican City, and his idea of psychology seems to be that WASPs are repressed Italians. What do you think he’s up to?
PF: He sets up an intricate perceiver/perceived thing, with binoculars and theater and paintings on the walls. What he does with it — and with the unbroken camera moves, and the dissolves, and the splintery editing — is try to show how your identity is formed by the tribe you’re in. And how people try to outwit it and like to think they can exist outside it, but are always getting trapped. It’s a web. The problem is that Scorsese thinks in purely cinematic terms. He knows what it is to be formed by movies and the media, but he doesn’t seem able to imagine his way inside someone who wasn’t formed by the media and the movies. Renoir and Ophuls used circling techniques to show characters caught up in a web, but they were so worldly you don’t feel it’s anything but cinematic technique.
RS: Scorsese really believes, or believed, that cinema is the apotheosis of the arts. He was one of those kids who was all revolutionary fervor. And his generation’s revolution has just led to corporate take-overs.
PF: It’s a generation that’s stuck with nostalgia. But I know you’re on a roll.
RS: Thanks. The generation before them — of Altman and Peckinpah — mastered traditional craft before they blew it apart. Scorsese’s generation bypassed traditional craft and headed for personal values. Now Scorsese’s left turning everything he touches into “personal cinema,” which in this case means he’s taken on Edith Wharton and produced a dignified variation of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” He makes the same movie over and move, no matter what the subject. The characters have no free will. There’s only Scorsese’s vision.
PF: In a scene set in the opera house balcony during intermission, the camera and the audio iris in on Newland and the countess, and she talks about the yellow roses he once sent her anonymously. He’s entranced: how does she know he sent them? She finishes talking to him, and she’s backlit for a minute by the stage lights as the curtain rises for the second act — she’s what connects him to the world of grand emotions, and to the arts. Art is viewed as transcendence, as it was in “Raging Bull.” But in “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta hurls himself directly at transcendence. Here, Newland holds back.
RS: Newland is like a virgin playing hard-to-get without even knowing it.
“A World Apart,” set in South Africa, is the first feature directed by the famous cinematographer Chris Menges, and for the most part it’s terrific. Menges worked as a documentarian in South Africa in the early 1960s, and the screenplay, by Shawn Slovo, is semi-autobiographical. The story, set in the early 1960s, concerns a young suburban white girl (Jodhi May), a South African whose parents are anti-apartheid activists. She admires them and values their attitudes but can’t help feeling jealous and angry because the political work absorbs so much of her mother’s care and time. (Her father has left the country to escape imprisonment.)
Menges can’t resist overstressing that Apartheid is Bad, and he isn’t successful with the character of the mother (Barbara Hershey). Hershey has some dignity, but she can’t seem to help being actressy; she’s always playing out an actress’s idea of a character. But the film manages to be earnestly (and movingly) liberal without being a drag. The feelings have been lived through, and, like the look of the movie, they’re turbulent and abraded. Menges has a distinctive talent for capturing private, unguarded-seeming moments (even as he keeps the public events moving around them) without making a big deal of it. His domestic scenes have a warmth and grace worthy of Mary Cassatt.
Menges seems to like working with women: here, a woman producer and a woman writer; his main actors are women, too. This may have some relation to the way you’re almost never asked to admire what has been set up before you — which is how most first-time directors (male or female) ask an audience to watch their movies. Mostly, you’re with the young girl (and the director), peeping around corners, eavesdropping, noticing things out of the corners of your eyes and wondering if other people notice them too. The film is at its best in catching her tangled feelings, and in its portrayal of her predicament. Jodhi May gives the girl a flickering, tentative incandescence.
In the early part of the century, before the movie business outgrew its seedy origins, it was one of the rare fields where an ambitious woman could hope to make a professional mark. Women wrote and directed; some stars had a measure of control over their movies that a Julia Roberts can only dream of today.
Among the most influential early film women were Mary Pickford and Mae West. In 1909, when she landed her first movie job, Pickford was just scraping by; in 1915, she was one of the world’s best-known women. Despite her winsome on-screen persona, she became the first actress to produce her own films, a cofounder of United Artists, and a major shaper of film acting. In “Pickford” (Univ. of Kentucky), a knockout of a biography on sale next month, Eileen Whitfield shows a rare gift for making sense of acting styles, and for bringing to life the world of silent movies.
Mae West was Pickford’s on-screen opposite, a sashaying cartoon of a woman of the world, appraising (and enjoying) men with self-mocking relish. Behind the scenes, she was Pickford’s match in tenacity and nerve; her producers never thought they were making anything but “Mae West movies.”
In her zesty “Becoming Mae West” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Emily Wortis Leider points out that by the time she barreled into movies, West had 35 years of theater and vaudeville behind her. She liked prizefighters, cross-dressers and stealing credit from collaborators. She wrote a lot of great comic lines (“I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far”) and gave them all to herself. But by the mid-’30s, Pickford had stopped acting, the business was aspiring to respectability and West’s freedom was curtailed. Since then, few actresses have managed to wield their measure of creative power.
* A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters by John Kisch and Edward Mapp. Long before Spike Lee, directors and producers like Oscar Micheaux were making films for what was called the “race-movie circuit.” A fascinating place to begin learning about this tradition is this book by Kisch and Mapp; its introduction by film scholar Donald Bogle covers a lot of ground in 20 pages. Here are posters for Westerns (“Harlem on the Prairie”), comedies (“House-Rent Party”) and musicals (“Reet-Petite and Gone”), nearly all of them featuring an “All-Star Colored Cast.” The posters themselves have a distinctive splashiness and pizzazz that can remind you of the work of the some of the performers they feature: Ethel Waters, Buck & Bubbles, Josephine Baker.
* Another Life by Michael Korda. The editor-raconteur profiles writers and celebs; a canny insider’s look at the book business.
* Asafo! African Flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard. This visual book is like a parade and a festival between covers. On display are flags made by West African warrior groups that were so taken by the visual splendor of European armies that they started making flags of their own, to their own taste. Spirals, crocodiles, wiggles, arrows and fish are some of the main elements — some of the flags have fringe on the edge. Adler and Barnard report that the Asafo have no written language, and that many of the flags convey oral proverbs, most of them commonsensical. My favorite: “If you shoot at a leopard and do not kill it, it is better not to have shot at all.” The designs have a retina-searing ferocity; the Asafo themselves consider the flags so potent that each new one must be approved by the chief of the elders and displayed before all companies to ensure no one is offended.
* Cracks by Sheila Kohler. Classmates from a South African boarding school meet at a reunion and wrestle with a mystery. An unforced erotic-poetic novella, especially good on the naive sensuality and malice of young girls.
* Cyclops by Albert Watson. Judging from his new book “Cyclops,” the photographer Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. This is all about style, impact and The New, pitched at an almost worrying level of high-strung artificiality. Here are richly-printed, black and white shots of actors, monkeys, rap stars, prisoners. They’re strikingly, boldly composed and sequenced: figures (a chicken, a dead frog) isolated against the white of the page, set opposite smokey-toned full-page portraits. David Carson, of the avant-garde rock and roll style magazine Ray Gun, designed “Cyclops,” giving it some of his chopped-out, splatter-font excitement. This is a coffee table book for cutting-edge coffee tables, with a bonus: a subtle, luscious nude of Sade.
* Key Ideas in Human Thought edited by Kenneth McLeish etc. It isn’t often that the more you leaf around in a reference work the more engaging it becomes. This book, put together by a team of British scholars, manages the feat. It’s certainly a solid way to bring yourself up to speed on notions from chaos theory to rhythm and blues. But it’s also a wonderful browse—a postmodern database with its own character and wry humor. Idiosyncratic and suave, the entries reflect academia’s freshest thinking. Even the choice of topics suggests a piquant notion of what knowledge is, or may be.
* Merrick by Anne Rice. There’s probably no American fiction writer who’s more review-proof than the New Orleans-based, witches-and-vampire novelist Anne Rice. To her fans, she’s a dark diva of blood, visions and lust. When a new Rice is released, as if on an unspoken signal, they apply the black lipstick, emerge from their dungeons, and buy up every copy printed. Nonfans live in a different dimension entirely. For us, reading her is like listening to incantations delivered in a foreign language—a blur of veils, candles, and horror-movie dialog, interrupted by the occasional sound of veins being punctured. Yet unlike, say, the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Rice’s writing is too trance-inducing to provoke giggles. For the record: her new one, “Merrick” (Knopf), is more of the Poe-meets-heavy-metal usual. A bi-racial heroine and voodoo are the fresh ingredients in the otherwise narcotically-familiar gumbo. Lestat (from “Interview With a Vampire”) makes a cameo appearance. Fans will be thrilled—but then they always are. In interviews, Rice has said that writing “Merrick,” her 22nd novel, brought her out of a depression. We couldn’t be happier for her. Me it left feeling pretty undead.
* Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. Nominated for a National Book Award, this bio of the great French writer Colette is intelligent and comprehensive. It’s also, unfortunately, a little fussy and overbaked.
* Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana. A suave, anecdote-rich biography of the French filmmaker who was part poet, part careerist, and a compulsive seducer.
* Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. Life in the Hollywood trenches, as recounted by a well-known screenwriter. Smart, shrewd, and more than a little horrifying.
* With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. These jottings by an actor who was first noticed in the British cult hit “Withnail and I” read as though they were dictated in a rush and edited with a Saladshooter. Yet they’re also sweetly revealing, because Grant seems never to have lost his bewilderment at the life of make-believe and money he has made his way into. He’s gaga when he meets Barbra Streisand; puppy-eager yet shrewd about his directors, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and unabashedly fond of performers (such as Julia Roberts) in whom he recognizes vulnerability and a spirit of play. Grant himself—an excess of fizz ever in search of some vessel to fill—has plenty of both.
Remembering the feverish moviemaking days of the 1970s, writer-director John Milius said, “The stuff that brought it all to an end came from within. Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg — they ruined the movies.” And here’s what producer Don Simpson said about the end of his own go-go years, the 1980s: “The failing of the present-day system is quite simply based on the fact that the studio executives are by and large ex-lawyers, agents, business-oriented people who are fantastic executives and managers who don’t have a clue about telling stories.” Different decade, same message: The movies are dead, business killed ’em, and things are only getting worse.
A consensus exists among some of the more serious, informed movie journalists and critics that all American moviemaking passion is spent. This judgment is the inevitable consequence of a widely shared interpretation of recent movie history, which goes like this: The spirit of the ’60s came to Hollywood with “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” The public responded to a new mood; the studios, in confusion, opened their doors; for once, talent poured through the system on its own terms. Then the mood of the country turned again, a reaction set in and — here come the ’80s! — the producers took over, delivering vacuous if shiny blasts of energy. In the ’90s, we have …
Well, not much of anything. Some nice performances. A nice movie here, a nice movie there. Video game-style action comedies and tedious indie flicks made by kids who think movie history began with “Pulp Fiction.” So the serious film critics write essays about the end of the era of the cinéaste and odes to the glories of the Iranian cinema. The reporters content themselves with tales of executives and deals.
Peter Biskind and Charles Fleming both write under the spell of this view. Both have new books out (the quotes above are taken from them).
Of the two, Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Simon & Schuster) is by far the more substantial. An attempt to sum up what was important in ’70s American moviemaking, it’s cast in the form of an anecdotal history of, as the subtitle puts it, “how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.”
In some ways it’s a helpful work. Biskind provides some essential historical information — reminding us, for example, how very, very old the people at the top of the studios were by the late ’60s (many of them had begun their careers in the silent days). He emphasizes the roles played not just by the young directors but by such producers and executives as John Calley, Bert Schneider and Robert Evans. And he’s convincing (as well as original) when he explains the importance of spouses, collaborators, lovers and friends in the careers and successes of his chosen directors — Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and Friedkin.
The glory days of the ’70s, he shows, were the creation of a larger community of people, working in more capacities, than we tend to imagine. There was a shared excitement about movie art. Filmmakers swapped ideas with writers; resourceful casting directors found new faces in the New York theater world. Friendships were formed on the basis of talent and respect as well as ambition. Francis Coppola plays ringleader; Paul Schrader is the most brazen hustler; Martin Scorsese the purest artist; Steven Spielberg the eager beaver who just wants to please and succeed. At times, Biskind’s book reads like an account of a ’60s commune, with moments of heartbreaking harmony achieved before the inevitable breakdown.
Some of Biskind’s judgments are questionable. Brian De Palma plays only a minor role in his account while Robert Altman plays a large one — yet surely De Palma is more representative of Biskind’s “rock ‘n’ roll generation” than Altman, who is a Korean War-era figure. The book’s major failing, however, is Biskind’s cynical insistence on interpreting his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image. He is (in part) celebrating the era, but he seems determined to be tough on everyone (except for Hal Ashby, his martyr-saint figure).
Biskind’s get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from. His excessively jazzed-up writing style doesn’t help. In an all-too typical passage, he allows an observer to conclude that, in winning Spielberg from Amy Irving, Kate Capshaw “outmanipulated the most manipulative woman who ever lived.” Bitchily amusing and “smart,” yes. But it doesn’t speak well for Biskind that he didn’t add a sentence of his own to allow for the possibility that Capshaw and Spielberg might have actually liked each other.
Biskind’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that what used to be known as the “movie brats” (Scorsese/Coppola/Schrader, etc.) were responsible for bringing about their own fall from grace. High on their defiant vision of movies as personal expression and determined to take over a system they professed to despise, they consumed too many drugs, allowed their heads to be turned by money, betrayed their friends and helped themselves to too many women. Finally, they lost their audience. They danced on the edge of the abyss, and then they fell right in.
The end of the moviemaking era known as “the ’70s” arrived with the overwhelming successes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Sayonara art, hello action scenes and happy endings. Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (Doubleday) concerns this post-“Star Wars” period. His book is a guilty pleasure, a garishly written, slapped-together piece of work delivered in punchy Variety-ese. (Fleming was once a reporter for Variety.)
His subject, Don Simpson, was an emblem of the ’80s. Credited with inventing the high-concept movie — imagine that on your tombstone! — Simpson hit his stride with the immortal “Flashdance,” and went on, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, to produce the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun” — the kind of movie that Biskind in his book, and in his overwrought way, calls “the smarmy, feel-good pap of the coming cultural counterrevolution.”
Simpson created an infamous persona — he’d have hookers flown to his film sets, for example — and eventually established a reputation as “the town’s most notorious bad boy.” He also had, for a few years, a nearly perfect instinct for what the public could be sold and a peerless story sense, manifested in cocaine-fueled, 40-page faxed memos. Still, as tuned in as he was, “Simpson was never the audience. He dominated,” as one source said to Fleming.
Once successful, Simpson repeatedly revised the story of his beginnings in Alaska, feeding credulous journalists accounts of religious-fanatic parents, beatings and jail time, even going so far as to tell a reporter that he’d “hunted moose for dinner” when he was 7. In fact, Fleming establishes, Simpson came from a well-liked lower-middle-class family and was a quiet, foppish nerd — “a nice boy,” as one classmate remembers.
It’s hard to tell where Simpson’s narcissism ended and his insecurities began. He subjected his chunky, 5-7 frame to epic quantities of drugs and booze, to late-night binges on peanut butter and hamburgers, to crash diets and workouts, to testosterone implants and to at least 10 procedures by plastic surgeons, including a butt lift and a penis enlargement. When Simpson died in 1996 at the age of 52, the coroner found 27 prescription drugs in his blood, plus cocaine, heroin and booze.
A quickie movie bio to its core, Fleming’s book is short on insight, full of padding and rich in unnamed sources and careless copy editing. It’s also zesty and likable. Fleming has an endearing taste (and even some talent) for one of my favorite hard-boiled tropes, the two-sentence cliffhanger chapter kicker. “The year to come was to be the best in Simpson’s entire career,” he writes. “It would also be his last.”
Reporting on a world as image-conscious and self-dramatizing as Hollywood is like trying to build a house on quicksand. Movie people are gossip-driven, and they’re also professional dissimulators, so it’s never hard for a movie journalist to turn up delicious anecdotes. (Hollywood exists in part to feed our appetite for them.) But even if you find five people to confirm a story, you can usually only feel certain that what you’ve found is five people who have been amused by the same rumor.
This basic fact about movie-biz reporting isn’t a problem with Fleming’s book, which you read as you do the National Enquirer. Clad in a gaudy silver jacket, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for history. Biskind’s book is, and is likely to become, a standard source for discussions of ’70s movies. So it’s disappointing that he’s often less scrupulous than he might be about passing along implausibly juicy tales. When a concerned party takes issue, Biskind does, to his credit, include the denial, usually in parentheses. He doesn’t, of course, exclude the tale.
The few examples where I have first-hand knowledge of events recounted by Biskind suggest that his book shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For example, Biskind relates that Scorsese and his screenwriter friend Mardik Martin agree that the main problem they had with their botched “New York, New York” was the Earl Mac Rauch script they started with, which was supposedly unfinished and a mess in other ways too. Alas, not true. Years ago, I read that original script. It was a gem, and not just finished, but tightly structured and pungently written. And Biskind misspells “Mac Rauch.”
But even if only half of what these books relate is true, the wildlife on display is still pleasingly horrifying. Both books deliver memorable quotations, the best of them apparently generated at extreme moments of showbiz humiliation and exasperation. One source, describing the Simpson/Bruckheimer negotiating style, says, “It’s not ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It’s ‘bad cop, worse cop’.” Remembering the night his two-timing wife, Ali MacGraw, accompanied him to a party for his greatest triumph, “The Godfather,” the ineffably embarrassing Robert Evans recalls sadly: “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.”
As fans of movie history well know, most of the men who manage to become filmmakers conform to the same template: part monster, part charmer, part alpha-male wannabe and (sometimes) part artist. The genuine charisma is overwhelmed in the long run by the need to be a big shot, whether artistic or commercial; Schrader confesses to Biskind that he screwed his own brother Leonard out of screen credits. Movie-book readers will also recognize another pattern: For all the heterosexual coupling that occurs, most of these men are far more interested in other men (their success, their wealth and their fame) than they are in women — hence the predilection for hookers, starlets and bunnies when the company of women is required.
Still, this group of moviemakers seems very different than similar figures in earlier ages. What’s missing is the carefree quality usually present in accounts of Hollywood life. Readers of Biskind and Fleming hoping for glamour are likely to be startled by its absence, and by the excretory fixations that the subjects display. Most only do so verbally; Simpson, fanatically determined to live his fantasies, is drawn to piss, dealing out abuse and shoving dildos where some might think they wouldn’t be welcome.
The characters are often so grotesque they seem to have arrived direct from Transylvania. Basic mood control seems a common challenge. William Friedkin, prone to rages and fits, literally foams at the mouth when angry. Coppola makes absurdly megalomaniacal announcements about the future of cinema, then spends weeks hiding from the editors of the movie he’s actually at work on. As for George Lucas, after years of whining that all he really wants to make is little experimental films, he finally decides that fate has determined that he should produce a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Those little experimental films will just have to wait a few more years.
Drugs are a convincing explanation for some of this gargoyle-like behavior; so too is the almost religious importance these men placed on being filmmakers — and the visceral aesthetic they pursued. If many earlier Hollywood entertainers offered the equivalent of champagne highs, the boomer filmmakers peddled blow-you-away, drug-style experiences. And where the earlier entertainers reveled in their good luck and their success, the boomer filmmakers pursued art and a place in the history books with earnestness, intensity and a sense of entitlement. Then Don Simpson came along, took their overwhelm-the-audience-with-sensations approach and rammed it home commercially. In fact, when you read both books, Simpson, usually portrayed as the opposite of the movie brats, comes across as the man who pulled it all together — the ultimate boomer auteur.
For anyone who followed movies in the ’70s and ’80s, Biskind and Fleming provide an opportunity to remember and reconsider. Those who weren’t there and who want to catch up could do worse than start with these books. But it may also be time to reconsider the view of movie history that these two authors, among many others, subscribe to. That view is itself a baby-boom phenomenon; in its focus on extremes and creators, it fails to account for a lot, some of which can be summarized in two simple words: “the audience.”
You learn from Biskind almost nothing about the movies most American moviegoers were paying to see in the ’70s. Among the decade’s hits were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Groove Tube.” Fleming takes accurate aim at the frantic, never-enough side of the ’80s, but doesn’t hint at the existence of such relatively casual audience-pleasers as “Airplane” and “Tootsie.” As a result, their books are like those histories of the ’60s that leave you with the impression that everyone in the country was a pot-smokin’, free-lovin’ hippie.
Utopian moviemaking passion may indeed be largely a thing of the past in Hollywood, and a certain kind of moviegoing culture may well have died too. But mourning these facts can blind us to the pleasures that are to be found in the modest and the piecemeal; the absence of fevers and trends can itself be savored, frustrating though that may be to journalists. The supposedly desolate ’90s have delivered such varied delights as “Mimic,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Princess,” “Clueless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bound,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Breakdown” and “Before Sunrise.” Too scattershot a group to be called a movement, these works all display a determination on the part of their creators to make coherent entertainments out of the deconstructed bits and pieces the ’70s and ’80s left behind.
Even the success of “Titanic” doesn’t have to leave the educated moviegoer in despair. Inane as the movie is, the audience that loves it is enjoying glamour, thrills, eroticism and romance. Biskind writes about how most of the movie brats wanted to overwhelm with art (“the ’70s”); Fleming shows Simpson making attacks on the nervous system (“the ’80s”). Whatever its scale, “Titanic” isn’t an assault on the senses or the psyche. It also has a comprehensible shape — and its audience is rising to the screen to meet it. They’re identifying, dreaming and weeping (“the ’90s”?). It may be a good time for moviemakers (and for the people who write about them) to recall that part of the job of an entertainer is to give the audience room enough to have its own responses.
In the world of Tom King’s “The Operator” (Random House), a biography of the music and movie mogul David Geffen, and of Kim Masters’ “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Morrow), an account of Michael Eisner’s reign at Disney, the media biz comes across as a pixilated moosh. The artists function like businesspeople, the businesspeople are creative, everyone lives in terror of where public taste will go next, and what comes into being around and because of the movies (publicity, gossip, spinoffs, documentaries) is more entertaining than the movies themselves.
“I’m not Sammy Glick,” Geffen protests, referring to the unprincipled subject of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” Yet of course Geffen is Sammy Glick to a T, although a contemporary, gay variation on the standard grasping, vindictive theme.
Born in Brooklyn to an unambitious father who died early and a bossy, enterprising immigrant mother, Geffen was a flop at school, but fell in love with musicals and movies. Hustling a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency (he claimed that he was related to Phil Spector and had a degree from UCLA), he found his niche. Within just a few years he’d won the trust of up-and-coming artists (Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell), and made himself the indulged protégé of powerful men (Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun). Soon he had a record label of his own. Asylum Records was, Geffen explained to the talent he wooed, meant to be an asylum for its artists. He’d care for his musicians personally; he’d look after them. Weren’t they surprised when he sold Asylum and moved on. Some years and a few attempts at moviemaking later, he was head of another new label. At Geffen Records, he explained, the artists came first. And weren’t those artists surprised when he sold Geffen Records, too.
Today Geffen is worth around $2 billion. He has produced a variety of movies, from “Risky Business” and “Personal Best” to “Interview With the Vampire,” and has cultivated a wide circle of high-powered friends and enemies. According to King, during his clawing-to-the-top days, Geffen was dismayed by his homosexuality; he formed intense friendships with Cher, Mitchell and a few other women while making compulsive use of male prostitutes. These days he’s open about being gay and is a big contributor to AIDS charities. A shrieker, a liar and a bully for most of his working life, he’s now entered a statesmanlike phase. He’s a partner in DreamWorks and has become a friend of Hillary and Bill’s, advising them on how to spin the press.
Geffen is small, slim and hyper. Michael Eisner, who was once described by the late producer Don Simpson as “a big Gummi Bear,” is a more modern, self-satisfied kind of fat cat. He grew up wealthy on Park Avenue, wearing a jacket and tie to family dinners. Where Geffen is hysterical and pushy, Eisner is self-deprecating and entitled. According to Masters, he has some charm and smarts, and much self-possession; running things suits his sense of himself. He got started doing grunt jobs at NBC and CBS, made his mark at ABC, and together with Barry Diller, Dawn Steel, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he was part of a famously aggressive executive team at Paramount. When that group fell apart, he got himself (and Katzenberg) hired by the moribund Walt Disney Productions. Together with the lawyer/executive Frank Wells, they worked the Disney brand. Out of their first 17 films, 15 made money, and within eight years, Disney was worth over 10 times what it was when Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg arrived.
Along the way, Eisner has also had some less well-known defeats. EuroDisney got off to a spectacularly bad start, losing over $1 billion in its first two years. A feud with Katzenberg led to a humiliating court battle, and Eisner’s choice of super-agent Mike Ovitz to be his No. 2 was an immediate disaster; after little more than a year on the job, Ovitz was given around $100 million to leave. Masters contends that, since the death of Wells in a helicopter crash and the departure of Katzenberg, who was largely responsible for the rebirth of Disney’s animation unit (and who wound up co-founding DreamWorks with Geffen and Steven Spielberg), Eisner has been floundering.
But along the way he has cashed some awfully big checks. In 1992, his salary and cashed-out stock options totaled more than $200 million, the largest sum the head of an American corporation had ever received. Where Geffen, in his new old-mogul way, actually has some dreams and some taste (he bought and refurnished a mansion that once belonged to Jack L. Warner, he owns art and he tries to make classy movies), Eisner, for all his affability and “warmth,” is professionally interested only in winning — Masters claims that Eisner doesn’t even enjoy dealing with “the talent.” Geffen appears to be more infuriating than Eisner, yet he’s also more appealing — he’s more mixed-up, a tiny part of him may actually love the arts and he has a streak of generosity.
There are some small practical lessons to be learned from these books, the most obvious being that if you can’t stand manic highs and suicidal lows, screaming, back-stabbing, and 24/7 work weeks, you’d probably do well to consider going into another field. It’s remarkable how few people with middle-class (as opposed to lower-working, or upper-middle/upper-class) backgrounds seem to find any success in the movie world. And sometimes it seems that being blessed with an adoring and ambitious Jewish mother is a prerequisite for success in Hollywood. Eisner’s mother was an “iron-willed” woman who regarded Michael as her “young prince” and “helped him cheat at his schoolwork.” Geffen’s mom considered David “a miracle child,” and called him “King David” right into young adulthood.
Both of these books encountered trouble on the way to the bookstore. King began his biography with Geffen’s cooperation — like Geffen, King is gay, and Geffen hoped a gay journalist’s view would result in a portrait of himself as a dignified, empowering role model. (He hoped to come across as a kind of showbiz Warren Buffett.) Partway through King’s research, though, Geffen shut King off without much explanation.
Still, the resulting book is anything but an attack. As a writer, King, a Wall Street Journal reporter, shows calm and intelligence, and he manages the occasional low-key insight. But most readers will probably wish that he’d taken the time to polish his many not-yet-there sentences, and made the effort to move his story along with more zip. Respectful and plodding, the book might have been written by a gentleman’s-butler robot.
Masters’ book has a very different tone — it has the fake urgency and portentousness of a New York magazine cover story. She promises to explain much of significance; “the Hollywood power structure would never be the same” is a phrase that seems to recur every few pages. Yet she never gets around to telling us what the change is. Her book was commissioned by Broadway Books, which dumped it as “unacceptable,” before being purchased and released by Morrow. In fact, it’s competent, pointless and rather deranged.
Masters seems like a classic example of a frantic media broad: “Stop me before I report again” is the subtext of her every paragraph. The same desperation also damaged “Hit and Run,” an account of the Jon Peters/Peter Guber reign at Columbia that she co-wrote with Nancy Griffin a few years ago. Eisner often comes across as a hazy figure; he refused the author’s requests for interviews, so Masters relies heavily on Katzenberg.
Although Masters is a contributing editor at Time and Vanity Fair, and an adequate writer of overheated magazine prose, she seems to have no sense of perspective, and a compulsion to gather and write down facts. A typical sentence: “DreamWorks lost out on the chance to have a Burger King tie-in by moving up the film, because such efforts must be planned many months in advance.” What is it that leaves her so clueless about what readers might actually care to know? Perhaps she just has little to say about the human content of her material, and so relies on facts, facts and more facts to carry her through. But page after page of descriptions of contract negotiations do not make for riveting reading. Geffen pops up on occasion, yet you’d hardly suspect from Masters’ descriptions of him how high-strung and abusive he can be. (King, in his index under “Geffen, David Lawrence, screaming of,” has 22 entries.)
As books, both are juiceless and pitilessly overdetailed. They do, however, leave you wondering: Why do so many articles and books about life behind the scenes in show business get published? My hunch is that it’s because editors of magazines and books see themselves reflected in the movie moguls and businesspeople. But perhaps readers actually like and demand these books and articles. After all, it’s still show business — bigger, sexier and more glamorous than our usual lives. These are stroke books for the power-and-glamour-hungry.
There is such a thing as a movie-business book that provides some illumination. Although garish and slapdash, such in-the-midst-of-it works as Jane Hamsher’s “Killer Instinct” (about the making of “Natural Born Killers”), Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (a down and dirty biography of Don Simpson), Robert Evans’ breathtakingly shameless autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Julia Phillips’ notorious “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again” do give a reader a sense of what life in the movie business is like. You feel that you’ve encountered something authentic.
There are also a handful of civilized books that tell you directly about the business: Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” for example, about United Artists and the “Heaven’s Gate”” disaster, and Julie Salamon’s account of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” fiasco, “The Devil’s Candy.” The screenwriter William Goldman recently published “Which Lie Did I Tell,” a sequel to his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” — as a writer, he’s tough and self-satisfied, but he does a good job of spelling out what it is the movie business exists to do, and how it generally goes about doing it.
“The Operator” and “The Keys to the Kingdom,” though, are predicated entirely on our (supposedly) pre-existing interest in all things behind-the-scenes. King manages a few passages about Geffen’s taste, Masters almost none about Eisner’s or Katzenberg’s. As character studies, these flattened-out artifacts are just raw material. And as for the impact these men have had on the products their businesses make, or the culture at large? Next to nada. Too long, too sober and too well-vetted to qualify as guilty-pleasure wallows in show-biz outrageousness and misbehavior, these books are likely to please only those readers whose Player Within demands constant feeding.
Manuel Puig, the Argentine author best known for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” writes novels that contrast the cramped lives people lead with the extravagant worlds they fantasize. A bitter romantic, he’s a fan of classic Hollywood schlock, and his theme is the attraction and impossibility of romance. He can’t get ideal love out of his head, and he can’t forget that it doesn’t really exist. When he recounts a character’s movie-fed memory or dream, his words seem to issue from an ecstatic trance. He takes off from kitsch into something almost visionary, and makes us understand the lure of Dream Factory illusions. When Puig is at his peak — in “Kiss,” “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” and “Heartbreak Tango,” and in sections of his newly translated “Pubis Angelical” (translated by Elena Brunet; Vintage) — his cracked, intense lyricism is in a class with that of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.
“Pubis Angelical” is like a jangled parody of a Hollywood weepie. A young woman being treated for a tumor awaits her doctor’s verdict and contends with a lover who wants her to participate in a kidnapping scheme. Sedated against pain, she slips into comalike states. The narrative alternates between her lucid periods and two ongoing reveries — one starring Hedy Lamarr, the other a sex surrogate. Puig tells the “real” story in a bare-bones style and recounts the hallucinations — in which his heroine’s deepest feelings play themselves out on a grand scale — in breathless, purple prose. The lush, piled-on sentences seem to change shape and take on their own life, like dream images: he describes “columns which widened little by little as they rose, suddenly to be transformed into the folds of the golden fabric wrapped around hips that continued into torsos of smiling women of gold, which, with extravagant humor, held up a golden ceiling with their coiffures of infinite curls.”
The novel has more intellectual machinery than it can support, and the framing story is dramatically immobile. But some of the episodes that take place in the heroine’s head can affect you as directly as music. And Puig’s whipped-cream prose in these passages has an absurd, touching overripeness that may remind you of the insides of gaudy movie palaces. Puig can make the pull of the ideal so hard to resist that he gets you wondering if the clichés of old Hollywood might really be the language of pure feeling.
For Klaus Kinski, the star of such films as Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” over the top was never close to enough, and in “Kinski Uncut” (Viking) he produced what is probably the most outrageous actor’s autobiography ever — less a memoir than a hyperbolically pornographic performance piece.
The book, which was a scandalous best seller in Europe, was on its way to American stores in 1988 when Random House’s lawyers grew alarmed and had it recalled — though enough copies got loose to make it an underground mini-classic. The version that has now been released by Viking has been trimmed of a few pages — “There was too much monotonous sex with chambermaids,” says the book’s editor — but includes new details about Kinski’s final years in California. Initials now disguise a few potentially litigious figures.
What made the book a cult sensation are its portraits of film people and its horror-comedy accounts of sex. It’s the cheerful relish Kinski takes in his own egomania that earns the book a place on the camp shelf, alongside such wonders as “Hollywood Babylon” and Anaïs Nin’s unexpurgated diaries.
People may compare “The Decline of the American Empire” to “The Big Chill” and “Hannah and her Sisters”; like them, it’s a comic talkfest that takes place in an atmosphere of hypocrisy and comfort. But this French-Canadian film has an unembarrassed, out-of-the-mainstream feel of its own, and no fake portentousness. The story concerns a group of academics gathering for dinner and talking about sex. These conversations — the locker-room talk of sophisticates — are often raucously funny. We recognize that the theories that get spun are expressions in abstract terms of the characters’ personal concerns; we may come to suspect that the “decline” of the film’s title refers to the older characters’ experience of middle age.
Denys Arcand, who wrote and directed, has conceived his film in thoroughly sexual terms; the camera takes us through the web of words and into the characters. When he flashes back, he shows more than his characters divulge — he takes us into their privacy — and all along, he cuts away to images of natural beauty. The relaxed performances and the cinematography, with its attentiveness to changes of light, give us a feel for the characters’ relationship to their flesh, and a sense of how sex to them isn’t merely an athletic pursuit, it’s an imaginative one.
Arcand’s approach has the result of giving sex — the unforeseen effects it can have and the variety of things it can mean to people — a many-hued splendor. In a sequence that begins on a pier at dusk and moves into the evening, we watch the clouds and the water, we hear one of the men wonder whether, if the Soviets bomb the States, he’ll be able to see the explosions, and we see the couples move (in various states of arousal and misery) into bed. This sequence has the emotionality of a nocturne; Arcand gives us the illusion that sex is spiraling around us.